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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:49 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat 6:49 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, apart from two or three movements outside the Chamber because of having unexpected visitors for a short while, I have been here for the whole of the debate, which has been of great quality. I think I am right in saying that, so far, only three or four out of a total of 63 speakers have been anti-Europeans, or Brexiteers, expressing a strong wish to leave the EU, not just saying, “I am happy to stay in the EU, but I propose a few modifications”. If that were to reflect the result for the country in the referendum on 23 June, I would be delighted. I remain an unreconstructed, unapologetic, fervent European. One is slightly shame-faced to say that nowadays, because of the deterioration in attitudes towards Europe in recent years, particularly in Britain but also because of the economic recessions elsewhere. People hesitate to say that, but it remains a reality.

The European project is still there and is bringing sovereign European countries together, working together through agreed, integrated institutions. This is the modern notion of sovereignty, not the old-fashioned one expressed in a couple of speeches, including the previous one. The notion of sovereignty as being on your own was last relevant to Britain in about 1912. Towards the end of the First World War the British Armed Forces were under the control of a French commander-in-chief, Admiral Foch. Even then, people did not worry about it so much, and nowadays it is completely out of date, with the development of the global village, let alone the development of the European Union.

Therefore, sovereignty means that countries make their own decisions through their elected Governments and parliaments. We are very proud of our system and its strength, although I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who is not in his place, that our major weakness is not having a PR system in national elections. That is a serious weakness; the Liberal Democrats have always taken that view, and I respect it. Of course, if they applied it to themselves following their unfortunate fall to eight MPs in the other place in the general election, they ought to reduce their number of Peers to about 45 to equate with that figure, although I understand that that is a different scenario. Other people have often said that you need a greater equivalence between the national popular vote and the Government’s seats in Parliament, otherwise you get disillusionment and a feeling of no involvement at all. People become more and more switched off from politics, particularly when politicians increasingly, with that party system, which is about playing party games almost for the sake of it, constantly change their ideas, policies and principles.

I live in France, which unfortunately also has a non-PR system for national elections, although it is at least a two-round system—a kind of alternative vote system in a way—where you have to have 50% in the first round. That is an improvement, but even then there is a discrepancy between seats in the House and the popular vote. This Government have no right to submit to the public lots of unpopular proposals through legislation on the basis of 24% of the electorate. I am glad that the Government have now recovered their poise by being a truly national Government in representing the referendum case for Britain to stay in. I very much admire what Ministers have been saying on that score, and I very much agree with their quite correct criticisms of other Ministers actually saying untruths on the radio about the realities of the European Union. Every country has a veto, and that too is a measure of the sovereignty of all the member states.

With modern sovereignty, the individual sovereignty of each member state goes up automatically when a collective decision is made—through voting or unanimity but mostly by gradual treaty creation, as Monnet anticipated. Collective sovereignty therefore goes up automatically too, and so does the individual national sovereignty of each state. We are much stronger as a member of the European Union because of all those treaty decisions. That will probably continue in the future, but it depends on what all the member states, meeting together, want. They now work more and more with the European Parliament, for which the turnout in elections is much better than the turnout in United States elections in the old days. When the United States became a single country after the civil war, it even had a property qualification for elections and very low turnouts.

At least the European Parliament is now widely recognised, and the rise of the so-called patriotic parties, which I think is the wrong adjective anyway, is due as much to the reality of austerity as it is to the fear of immigration; it is both together. The public are switched off by continuing austerity; they do not want it in any country. It now behoves us all to press ahead with the referendum campaign and to support the Government in what they want to do. I disagree that their four achievements in the agreements with the other countries were of any substantial content, but they are better than nothing, I suppose, to bring in a larger national constituency of people supporting future European development.

However, the European Union remains democratically based, with a very modestly sized civil service doing what the European sovereign member states, in their meetings in the European Council, and the Council of Ministers with their different portfolios, ask them to do: to look into this, look into that, and make proposals. The Commission is a tiny body. It has nothing to do with democracy. It is like a civil service, except that it often has political chiefs as Commissioners. If we keep telling the public how it actually works more and more as time goes on, I hope and pray that there will be a big yes in the referendum.